Languishing in the Lab

This is no ordinary vege patch. For one thing, there’s no soil – just water bubbling through metres of hydroponic aquaduct. In fact, there’s no garden at all as such;…

This is no ordinary vege patch. For one thing, there’s no soil – just water bubbling through metres of hydroponic aquaduct. In fact, there’s no garden at all as such; this plantation looks more like the sort of bio-dome NASA might run on the moon one day.

That’s because it used to be a swimming pool. When it started to leak five years ago, Rhode Street Primary School in Hamilton’s Dinsdale was never going to find $100,000 to have it fixed. So the students came up with another idea” turn it into a hydroponic garden.

Last January, the kids put the plants in. By March, we had tomatoes and cucumbers, recalls Alastair Kerr.

greenhouseIt’s the sort of innovation Rhode Street School is getting a reputation for. As far as Kerr, the school’s property manager and part-time teacher, is concerned, the garden is science teaching the way it should be” the way it needs to be if we’re going to reverse a worrying trend revealed in a string of recent education surveys.

Last year, a National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) survey run by Otago University found that;The percentage of year 8 students disliking science at school increased substantially, from 15 per cent in 1999 to 37 per cent in 2007.More and more kids are telling researchers that their class˜never does good things in science.’

Professor of Education at Otago University, Terry Crooks wrote the NEMP report. When I went through school in the 1950s and 60s, science was very fashionable” a lot of kids wanted to study science at school. But very few see it as a career prospect nowadays; it’s all about law and commerce. It seems to me that something of the romance of science” the excitement of science” needs to be re-injected.’
That indifference will affect students’ motivation to go on learning about science, says Sandra Aikin. What we’re finding with science is that in primary schools, they don’t do very well, says Aikin, a senior teaching and learning officer at NZEI Te Riu Roa’s national office in Wellington. What’s really worrying is that some kids don’t even get high enough to feature on the lowest point of the table.’

A look through the surveys hints at why. NEMP and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) both concluded last year that science is getting edged out of the curriculum and that fewer and fewer classroom hours are spent on experiments, the very hands-on stuff that kids enjoy the most, says Aikin.TIMSS showed us that, while New Zealand rated around the international mean, it was the lowest English-speaking country in science. It’s quite a serious result.’

She puts it all down to the conspiracy of a suite of shifts in primary education, but says teacher competence” and confidence” lies at the heart. Primary school teachers are generalists, and they don’t have the level of competence that’s now required in science teaching. If they don’t have that competence, if they can’t answer a child’s question, or know where to take it next, then they don’t have the confidence, either.’

Daryl Gibbs agrees. Assistant principal at another Hamilton school, decile-9 Berkley Normal Middle School, he says many teachers worry they might not be able to answer students’ questions’. That,The kids will know more than they do.’

That sounds implausible, until you realise that there is no requirement whatsoever for student teachers to take any science papers over and above the basic training they get at university;˜Once they’ve done their 100-level paper, which is compulsory,’ says Gibbs,˜they don’t have to do anything more. So unless it’s an interest or a passion, they don’t tend to follow up.’

He ventures that a vicious cycle may be holding sway;˜Science may not have been a favorite of theirs at school, either.’

There was time, back in the 1990s, when a teacher struggling with the arcana of chemistry could call for help. One of a national network of science advisors would ride to the rescue. But a change of curriculum statements saw them commandeered from science, drafted instead into literacy and numeracy.When I first came into the science advisor community in the mid-1990s,’ says Mary Loveless, now an advisor with Waikato University’s School Support Services˜we had five science advisors for primary schools. Now I have 0.5.’

Some schools now do science only once a term.˜If you ask some teachers when they last did science, it might be as far back as a year ten,’ says Loveless.˜They’ve left it behind. They don’t see it as a profession they aspire to.’

But things are changing; the shift to enquiry learning, says Gibbs, has made it OK for teachers not to know everything.˜They’re becoming more and more relaxed about not having to be the font of knowledge at the front of the class. Instead, it’s now; “Good question; let’s go and investigate that.” I think that the more new teachers that come through, the less apprehension there will be about having to know all the answers.’

Back at Rhode Street, the neat rows of nascent broccoli and lettuce are living, growing proof of that, says Kerr.˜None of us knew anything about hydroponics, so it was about finding out together. It’s about letting the kids know that you don’t have the answer to everything.’

Science isn’t going to languish at Rhode Street on his watch. Lunchtimes, he runs extra science classes, currently dealing with technology and electronics. They’re voluntary” kids can come along if they feel like it” and they do; Kerr’s classes are always full. Over in the swimming pool, buy the time those plants are ready to harvest, the kids’ next project will be ready to receive them.˜We asked the kids what they wanted to learn, says Kerr,˜and they came up with the idea of a pizza oven.’

Not everyone calls it learning critics ask, just when will the kids get round to learning to read and write but Kerr says there’s room for everything in a well-designed, integrated programme.The big push, obviously, has been for numeracy and literacy,’ says Kerr˜and in the junior classes they probably should be the focus, but you can teach science in conjunction with these things. I can’t stress enough the importance of having science as part of authentic learning” real things for kids to do. Every time they cook something, they’re doing science.’

This summer, the hydroponic garden will supply the tomatoes, while a vegetable and herb gar-den will keep the pizzas toppings coming. Then the students will work out the marketing and sales; after all, they need the profits to fund the skateboard ramp they want to build next.

With its the garden and the pizza oven, Rhode Street has tackled some of the biggest problems identified in the NEMP and TIMSS reports; it’s made science relevant and fun for kids and teachers. Through smart design and an inclusive, hands-on approach, it’s levelled a playing field that elsewhere tips sharply uphill for Maori and Pasifika students.

It’s also evened out achievement within the school. Elsewhere, noted TIMSS, science performance varies more within schools than it does between them, something Sandra Aikin finds˜quite extraordinary, because a lot of our schools are really quite small” somewhere around 55 per cent are three-teacher schools or smaller” so you wouldn’t expect much variation within them’.

The survey probably reinforces a widespread suspicion, she adds, that kids begin their schooling with very different knowledge and skill sets,˜So it’s going to be a big job to turn this around, and it can’t all be blamed on teachers.’

The answers, she says,˜have to come at every level; the support, the advisers, the opportunities for teachers so that they become a professional cadre. They need a system that nurtures them’ That nurturing has begun. In direct response to the NEMP findings, the Royal Society launched a pilot scheme in August” Primary Science Teacher Fellowships” to place primary teachers alongside scientists in the Department of Conservation, NIWA, Geological and Nuclear Sciences and other science providers. Next year, the scheme will expand to accommodate 80 teachers.

Society education advisor Joanna Leaman says the six-month immersion programme will help teachers˜make science exciting for their students. Our aim is to develop a community of confident science educators who will take a leadership role in science in their schools.’

Daryl Gibbs says that’s precisely the sort of thinking that’s needed.˜I think it’s about putting excitement back into it for the kids. We want to keep them inquisitive, to want to know more about how things work and why things happen.’ But it’s got to be more than just messing round with jelly crystals, he cautions;˜We’ve got to keep the science lessons in there.’

Mary Loveless agrees;˜We need to link science back to the everyday. It might be a rainbow in the sky, for instance. It’s about encouraging the children to ask questions. To observe, to wonder to think about what’s happening. Then, hopefully, that will snowball.’

Terry Crooks believes the shift to local curricula offers schools the chance to tailor science programmes” like Rhode Street’s pizza oven” to the needs and preferences of their students.˜It means less of a tight, teacher driven agenda, and a bit more responsiveness to local opportunities.

‘It would be most helpful to do more hands-on things,’ he says,˜things that could be called investigation, rather than a little bit of this and a little bit of that in an attempt to cover off a list on the curriculum.’

There’s a lot at stake, says Crooks. If New Zealand is serious about positioning itself as a player in the knowledge economy, we have to turn this around.

‘What we need in our world are people who are turned on to whatever they are doing; we need people who are inspired to turn out great music, people who are inspired to be great artists. And we need people who are going to be great scientists. We’ve had some wonderful examples of scientists in New Zealand who have been world-leading. We have a history of being innovators, and we want to try and maximise the chances that our young people will go on to find some-thing that they can really put their heart and soul into.’